I am working on a conlang and considering ways to denote a noun in a sentence. It's easy to handle single-word nouns (translating from English), because, well, they are one word. An example of a single word noun is "tree". In my case, I just prefix them with a. But it gets more complex when you consider more complex multi-word nouns. Some examples include:

The big old tree.
The big old oak tree.
The tree leaf forest.
The dirt path.
The dirt path area.
The town grocery store.

All my examples are where there is a main noun at the end, and everything else comes after the The (it prefixes the noun). But I'm sure there are examples you could come up with where everything else comes after (or surrounds) the key noun, I can't think of any off the top of my head for English.

The first one consists of what are traditionally called adjectives I think. As big and old are just simple adjectives. Adjectives are known as "noun modifiers". In my foobar (fake, for demonstration purposes) conlang, adjectives are prefixed with u, so it makes it easy: ubig uold atree. Cool, that should work...

But then it gets more complicated. "Oak tree" is a type of thing. You could say "oak" is an adjective, but is it really? I don't know for sure.

Then it gets even more complicated. The phrase tree leaf forest should probably be written tree-leaf forest, but when speaking you don't denote hyphens, so there's that. But all 3 of these words themselves (standalone) are nouns ("tree", "leaf", and "forest"). So do I mark them as noun-after-noun, or a bunch of adjectives followed by a single trailing noun. That is the key question I am asking, is it the pattern (in English or any other language), that the noun is either by definition or by some principle a single word (like the trailing forest in tree leaf forest) and the rest are adjectives? Or how should we think of this?

The phrase dirt path area has the same exact problem. What is to be a noun, what is to be a noun-modifier? Because "old" and "dirt" are very different, "old" on its own is an adjective/noun-modifier, while "dirt" on its own is a noun ("old path forest" vs. "dirt path forest"), shouldn't they be distinguished in some way in theory? By that I mean, grammatically classified differently?

In the last case, "grocery store" is the noun, so there is a case where actually, it's not the trailing single one-word noun that should be marked as a noun, it is the 2 word phrase "grocery store" that should be marked as a whole noun. But preceding "grocery store" is "town", which is also (standalone) a noun, but in this case acting as an adjective. But really, "grocery" is the "type" of store, so store is the noun, and grocery is the adjective.

I'm sure there are cases where the noun is 3 words, but I can't think of any ("coffee shop" is 2, "full moon", or perhaps 3 would be "assistant state secretary"). Oh but then you have "assistant state secretary Jane Doe". In the first case you have "secretary" as the trailing noun ("assistant", and "state", being adjectives I guess?), but in the second one "secretary" is now an adjective? And "Jane Doe" is the noun?

Basically the question is, what counts as a noun when there are other seemingly-"modifiers" present around the noun, and what counts as a modifier?

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    From your questions it looks like you're creating a modified version of English. I would suggest having a look at some other languages for inspiration and to broaden your horizon: toki pona would be a good one, as it's small and quite different from English. Klingon has different word order and some interesting morphology. Both of them will give you some good ideas for your own creation. Dec 17, 2021 at 8:42

1 Answer 1


What you call "multi-word nouns" are usually called "noun phrases". It is a peculiarity of English (but not uncommon; isolating languages tend to do this, see Chinese) that you can stack nouns into a noun phrase, with a head and the rest of the nouns as modifiers.

Inflectional languages tend to mark the part of speech of words, and there is no ambiguity between adjectives as modifiers (often in grammatical category agreement with the noun), and a noun (in the appropriate case, usually genitive or an equivalent). In the former case, you can often turn a modifying noun into an adjective by an appropriate morphological derivation.

I'm sure there are cases where the noun is 3 words, but I can't think of any

Grave sex scandal - one interpretation considers grave to be an adjective, the other one a noun (and conveys a rather macabre meaning).

To turn it into a concrete example, in Esperanto grava seksa skandalo would be ADJ-ADJ-NOUN, but you could also use (somewhat stiff) grava skandalo de sekso ADJ-NOUN-NOUN_GEN (lit. grave scandal of sex); the macabre meaning would be covered in seksa skandalo de tombo (sex scandal of (a) grave), or using the usual morphological process to turn nouns into adjectives, tomba seksa skandalo. Although Esperanto speakers would likely exploit the agglutinative properties of the language and use seksskandalo if it were not for the difficult -kssk- consonant cluster.

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